Six Spooky Mayo Stories to Scare the Pants Off You

Six Spooky Mayo Stories to Scare the Pants Off You

Halloween in Westport… when the restless dead of the past rise from the Otherworld to party and scare the living daylights out of us.

November 1 marks the start of the ancient Celtic season Samhain. On this day, the sun is at its weakest, and the veil between this world and the next is said to be at its thinnest, allowing skittish souls to flit back and forth.

And where better to spend the spooky season than in Mayo? The county’s ancient, weather-beaten landscape – with its deserted villages, crumbling castles, misty mountains, craggy cliffs and treacherous bogs – is the perfect setting for chilling stories that send a shiver up the spine.

Here are just a few – all local Mayo lore handed down from generation to generation, ensuring trembles and frights aplenty. Read on, if you dare…

The Pontoon Púca

The púca (pooka) is the most-feared fairy. You do not want to meet one of these. Imbued with a vindictive streak, it assumes a variety of terrifying forms to wreak havoc and commit ghoulish, murderous acts. To appease the púca and render it calm and harmless, Mayo people of bygone times would throw a glass of poitín out of their front door after nightfall.

If you really do want to try to find one of these fractious faeries, take a half-hour trip up the road to Pontoon and cross the bridge there at night. A púca in the form of a huge, slavering black dog is said to appear here to terrify late-night wanderers. So often has it startled passersby over the centuries, it is affectionately known as ‘Alice’ among locals.

Perhaps you should carry a drop of the hard stuff to offer her if she pounces into your path. Well, it can’t hurt…

Seán na Saggart

Sometimes tales of earthly deeds are just as scary as the supernatural. The grisly story of Seán na Saggart is one such dastardly tale.

Active around central Mayo during Penal times, Seán na Saggart was a notorious priest hunter who received a hefty bounty for each priest’s head he collected. Once he had been paid, he would toss the heads into a local lake now called Loch na gCeann (Lake of the Heads).

Seán na Saggart was ultimately killed with his own knife, by a priest he was trying to murder. He is buried in Ballintubber Abbey facing north where the sun never rises, in contrast to the other graves in the graveyard, which face the east and the rising sun. An ash tree grew on his grave, eventually splitting it in two. As if that weren’t enough to raise the hairs on your neck, it is said that the tree, which still stands, has never blossomed.

The Devil of Tooreen Hall

One of the most famous stories of the supernatural in the west of Ireland is the tale of East Mayo village Tooreen’s dancing devil.

On the chilly starlit of June 6, 1958, a dance was underway at Tooreen Dancehall. The band was in full swing, and couples were whirling around the floor at great speed. Local beauty, Bridget O’Flynn, was asked to dance by a brooding, handsome stranger – and soon the good-looking pair were turning heads with their lustful cheek-to-cheek dancing, forbidden by local priests.

All came to an abrupt halt, however, when Bridget let out a blood-curdling scream. She had glanced down at the feet of her partner only to see he had the cloven hooves of Satan himself.

His disguise blown, the devil is said to have made a quick getaway ‘in a fancy car’, kicking up dust as he spun away into the night … no doubt in search of another innocent at a ‘lustful’ dance.

News of that diabolical night in Tooreen travelled far and wide, making headlines around the world, ensuring that the village dancefloor was full to capacity for months afterwards. The handsome devil never reappeared though, much to many a girl’s disappointment. The bad boys were always popular…

The Devil of Tooreen Hall

The Devil of Tooreen Hall

The curses of Leac Chuimín

A flagstone that covered a saint’s grave in Kilcummin churchyard in north Mayo was one of those most dreaded of objects in the west if Ireland: A cursing stone.

A foundling, Saint Cuimín (Cummin) is said to have washed up on the Erris coastline in a fragile vessel. He was found by a local named Maughan, who adopted him and raised him as his own. Cuimín went on to live the life of a religious hermit and built his little church, the ruins of which still stand. (The church gives the area of Kilcummin, which overlooks Kilalla Bay, its name.)

On his deathbed, Cuimín bequeathed his grave flagstone, or ‘leac’, to the Maughan family, together with the power to use the stone for cursing evil doers and slanderers. If anybody for miles around had a grievance with a neighbour, they fasted for 15 days and then paid the Maughan in charge of Leac Cuimín to turn the stone and use his ‘God given’ powers of malediction to curse the wrongdoer. A walk around St Cuimín’s Well completed the ritual.

Over the centuries, violent battles for the rights to the stone broke out among local families who had married into the Maughans, tearing the community apart and tarnishing the good name of the district.

Eventually, in the 1830s, the son of a local parson named Waldron decided enough was enough. He took a sledgehammer at night and broke the stone to fragments. Unfortunately, the consequences were not as he intended. There was a rush to collect the fragments, each of which could be used for the same purposes as the original. He had simply created many small cursing stones.

Eventually, the situation got so bad that serious intervention was needed. With curses flying hither and thither and blood running in the streets, Dean Lyons, then Administrator of St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina, had the fragments of the stone collected and built into the masonry of the new cathedral, where they have rested since.

Breaffy’s Cóiste Bodhar

Death coach folklore is particularly strong in Ireland. Known as the Cóiste Bodhar, the horseless coach warns of imminent death to either oneself or to a close relative. Once it has come to Earth it can never return to the Otherworld empty.

For generations, stories of the Cóiste Bodhar have been circulating around Breaffy, near Castlebar, where it is reputed to have appeared on several occasions. In the Breaffy School and Parish centenary book, a story by local man Billy Bourke tells of one such happening.

Billy’s brother Tony, now a priest, had a terrifyingly close encounter with a Cóiste Bodhar when he was a teenager. The young Tony was cycling home late one night, along an old road that runs behind Breaffy school on the back road to Turlough, when he heard a noise coming from his left. He turned and saw ‘this thing coming across the fields towards him, getting larger as it approached’.

“When it was quite near him, he could clearly see that it was a carriage, an old type of carriage hears that you would only see in museums,” Billy says. The boy pedalled as hard as he could. Just when he thought he was about to hit the carriage, the chain came off his bike and he crashed onto the road and the carriage crossed close in front.

Tony could clearly make out that it was a horseless carriage. He saw a dim light emanate from the hearse box, and heard a rattling like that made by iron wheels. Lucky for him the coach did not stop there, but continued on, likely to bring its bad news to another poor soul.

The Mary Burkes of Cloonagashel

In the mid 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I appointed the brutal, bloodthirsty Richard Bingham as Governor of Connacht. He immediately set about subduing the Burke Clan, who were the most powerful family in the region, aiming to acquire their vast lands and wealth for Elizabeth.

After many years of ruthless pursuit by Bingham, the weakened Burkes rallied and attacked Bingham at Cloonagashel (called Cloonacastle today). They were heavily defeated. Bingham was still smarting after his advances upon a beautiful young Mary Burke were rebuffed, and so he devised a particularly heartless and cruel punishment for the attack.

He rounded up all in the locality bearing Mary’s name – 15 Mary Burkes of all ages – brought them to the castle and hung them from an oak tree in the grounds. Their bodies were burned in a limekiln and what remained was thrown in a hole close to the castle, known today as Poll na Marbh, or Hollow of the Dead.

In a recent creepy turn of events, when Ballinrobe Golf Club relocated to Clooncastle in 1995, they held a Mass and blessing of the grounds. A few days later it was noticed that a huge bough of an oak near the castle – Bingham’s hanging tree – had broken off and was lying on the Marys’ communal grave. Strange happenings and unexplained sightings have been common on the golf course ever since…

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